The Mystery of Churching
Fr. Josiah Trenham · February 6, 2014
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. [Amen.]
I wish you all a very happy Feast of our Savior’s Meeting in the Temple and the Purification of the Virgin. Before I start my homily, brothers and sisters, I want to point out two things to you. The first is this beautiful epigonation that I’m wearing upon my knee. This shield is the sign of a priest who is a confessor, who’s given the faculties of confession by his bishop, and I’m wearing it today with many thoughts of our dear Metropolitan Paul, Metropolitan Boulos of Aleppo, who is as you know since last April 22 in captivity—we hope he’s alive—in the hands of Muslim extremists. He gave this epigonation to me in January of 2010 when I was visiting him.
And you might have seen this beautiful beaded icon of the most-pure Virgin just next to the Directress icon here. That icon belongs to Bethany Galaris, and she was given it by her parents after they visited the holy Convent of St. Thekla in Maaloula, one of the most sacred shrines in the Christian world. It’s there because we are praying for the abbess of that monastery, Mother Pelagia, who also, with her nuns and the orphans that they care for, was kidnapped and is in captivity. I was very sad to see a YouTube video of the destruction of the Monastery of St. Thekla. It has been almost completely destroyed.
Some of you who have been there know that it is not just a magnificent mountainside monastery with a beautiful church and many quarters, but up into the cave there is the shrine where St. Thekla’s relics are enshrined. And in the YouTube video… When you go into the shrine, you go into a place where the faithful can make their prayers; there’s a place to light candles, and then along the walls there’s canes and crutches that have no longer any use because of the miracles that St. Thekla has done for people over the years there in that place. Then there’s a wall, like an iconostasis, that has a grille that you can see through and pray through, and the relics are buried just behind that grille. In the YouTube video, the entire shrine is on fire, and looking through the grille are nothing but flames. Apparently, the relics of St. Thekla the Protomartyr, who was a disciple of St. Paul and the first woman Christian to give her life in the cause of the Gospel, have been defiled by these radicals.
Keep these people, these dear brothers and sisters, in your minds and in your hearts when we’re praying for them, and don’t grow weary of the prayer. We will continue to pray. Every Liturgy, we will continue to pray and trust that God’s will would be done, whatever that may be: that he would strengthen them by his grace to accept it and to go through it for their glory and his.
Today is the wonderful Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, and I was reflecting on it yesterday, especially in the morning at the baptism of little Phoebe Simpson, which took place here yesterday morning at eight. And after the baptism was done, I went over with the celebrators. We had a little repast there and a little celebration. She was so in her glory. And I got the privilege of being able to hold her for a few minutes, and as I was holding her, I was looking closely at her beautiful face: her very pudgy cheeks, her little mouth, her cute nose, her eyelashes, and her eyebrows. Just a gorgeous child. And I kind of moved her arm and I arranged her right there. She looked up at me once, and she just closed her eyes—and she went to sleep! [Audience laughter] It was wonderful! I wanted to do the exact same thing… [Audience laughter]
And I thought to myself: “She, this precious child, now is God’s.” She, like all of you, brothers and sisters, she was born in the bosom of the Church, surrounded by prayers, by the Lord’s blessing, by the concern of his people, from the moment that she was conceived. She was named in the Lord early. She was churched. She was offered to the Lord as an offering and as a gift by her parents. And then she was mystically united to Jesus and infused with his life in baptism, and the rest of her days will only make sense as an outflow of that. Her own life will only make sense in reference to the Lord and in service to him and his people and in the community of the Church.
I couldn’t help but think about Simeon the Elder while I was holding Phoebe yesterday. I was so taken by this newly grace-filled child, this sinless, chrismated, radiantly glowing in the divine energy of God child sitting there in my arms. I was thinking, “O Lord, please transfer some of that to me. Transfer some of that to me. Transfer some of that to me.” But we have been, since the Nativity, celebrating these exact events in the life of our Savior. We celebrated his marvelous Nativity. On the first of January we celebrated his circumcision and his naming. And then today we celebrate his churching, when the most-pure Virgin, forty days after giving birth, in accordance with the law of Moses, brings the Christ Child to the temple according to the custom of the Law.
This offering of the firstborn and this churching has a double significance. The offering of the firstborn is very serious in the Old Testament and the life of Israel. You might remember the last and most terrible plague on Egypt. After those horrible nine plagues—the gnats and the boils and the water turning into blood, then the great darkness, which was the ninth plague, and then finally that horrible tenth plague which was the angel of death who came into Egypt and killed the firstborn of all the Egyptians, only passing over the houses of the people of God who had slaughtered the Passover lamb and had taken the blood of the lamb and put the blood of the doorposts, the lintel of their house, so that when the angel was coming even for them, he would see the blood of the lamb and pass over that house, and the firstborn would not die.
This was the tenth and final plague. Then the Lord God brought them miraculously out of Egypt, and he told them—in Exodus 11 and 12 we have the recounting of this last plague, and then [in] Exodus 13 the Lord tells them that there will be a firstborn rite for his people, too, and that the firstborn child of every believing family is an offering to God. That child belongs to God, and in order for that family to have the child back, they have to bring that child to the temple and they have to offer an exchange, a sacrifice: a lamb, and if they can’t afford it, two turtledoves, which is why, in the icon, you see Joseph bearing two turtledoves behind the Virgin, because he was poor, and he brought his offering to God for the redemption of the firstborn.
This is the background of this dedication that we’re celebrating today. Today, forty days after our Savior’s birth, his mother brings him to the temple for the rites of purification and sacrifice. What a beautiful family. The piety of Joseph, the devotion of the Virgin. Brothers and sisters, this is how we should live. We should have families like this: rooted in an obedience to the Law. The Lord, by submitting to all of this, he was allowing himself in the arms of his mother to do the Law that he himself gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. And in that humble submission, he shows us all that from the very earliest days until our last breath, which we see in Simeon. We see the youngest in the Child Christ, and we see Simeon, a man very, very old, who takes his last breath after holding the Christ Child in fulfillment of prophecy. From the beginning to the end, the way of life that is blessed is the humble life of obedience to the Lord’s words. We are people who find our life being near God and keeping his words.
Imagine the embrace of Simeon the God-receiver, holding the Christ Child at the same age as Phoebe. After waiting in a cave at Bethlehem for the forty days, St. Joseph the Betrothed and the holy Virgin brought Jesus to the temple. They were greeted by the High Priest Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist. He directed the mother of God to the place in the temple that was set apart for the virgins. This was most unusual since she was carrying a child in her arms. And just as he did this, Simeon the Elder arrived. This man is described by the Scriptures as “just and devout, keeping all the commandments of God.” He had waited many years for the fulfillment of the prophecy, because the Holy Spirit had told him he would not die until he had seen with his own eyes the Savior of the world.
He held Christ in his arms, and he no doubt did exactly what I did: he admired his nose, his ears, his chin, he mouth, his eyebrows, his eyelashes. But really, what he admired was that he knew he was holding the Redeemer of the universe. He was holding Christ, but Christ was holding him. He held the Lord and said, “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,” and that beautiful, agéd Prophetess Anna came in and spoke prophecies about the Lord, and the Pharisees ran out, offended that Zacharias the priest had put the holy Virgin into the place of virgins, since she was obviously not one in their minds: she had a Child, and Joseph was the father. And they went and told Herod the nasty things that they had seen.
Here you have it in the very example: the fall and rise of many, as prophesied by Simeon. He said that this Child I am holding is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel. Those who have humble hearts and are willing to obey will be raised up in the glory of Christ, and those who are proud and will resist, like the Pharisees, will fall. That prophesy unfolded in our Savior’s life. It unfolds in the life of the Church today. It unfolds in the life of every bishop and priest. Brothers and sisters, inasmuch as we humbly accept the leadership of Christ and his Church, we will rise with Christ, and inasmuch as we resist his words, his commandments, yes, even his sinful leaders, like bishops and like priests, we’ll fall.
Simeon’s death was the falling away of all the Old Testament types and symbols and shadows, and his holding Christ was the bringing in the fulfillment of the reality of that which was yearned for by the people of God for so long. These are deep mysteries surrounding birth, the birth of our Savior, and I want to finish my homily by talking to you about the mysteries that surround birth today in the Church. What we did yesterday in the baptism, which we do a lot of these years. That font is magnificent on Great and Holy Saturday, when so many get into it, but it’s also magnificent several times a month every month in this parish, and I’m hoping—I’m confident—that there will be a day soon that there will never be a Saturday without a baptism in that font. We’re getting pretty close. We’re getting pretty close, but, you know, in ten years that’d be perfect. Every Saturday, a new child baptized in that font.
What a Church we live in. Such a tender mother who cares so much about us, not just when we’re old and we can do something for her. No, from the very moment that she finds out that the Lord has brought us into existence. Priests love to hear about conceptions. It’s one of the great confidentialities that priests often get to hear. When husbands and wives find out that they have a child on the way but they’re really not sure and they just found out, they usually call their priest and say, “Father, would you please… Don’t tell anyone, but… We’re pregnant!” Priests go, “Yess! Yess!” and he quietly prays for them, and then he plays stupid. Most good priests are good at playing stupid, especially with their very suspicious presvyteres. [Audience laughter] “Hey, honey, is she pregnant?” “I don’t know!” [Audience laughter] “Ask her.”
As soon as the baby’s born, the Church visits the child. If priests can, they like to go over on the day of birth and bring a little holy water. There’s a beautiful prayer on the day of birth. I was so sad, day before yesterday. We had another child born in our parish. Nick and Lisa Mueller gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I think it’s the first time, at least in my memory, I was not able to get to the hospital on the day of birth. I just couldn’t make it. What a sadness for me. But this is how the Church is. In her tenderness, she comes, she brings a little holy water. A week later, she’ll meet the family and find out and participate in the naming of the child, and then wait for that day when the child’s brought to church. And when the child’s brought to church and we bring the child in, we bring the child in to the hymn, the troparion, of this feast, and then the choir, if the choir’s here, will sing the megalynarion that you sing on the ninth ode here in orthros on this feastday. All the churchings take place under the shadow of this Great Feast, and the churching of our Savior.
You know, I don’t think that the Latins and the Protestants do churching at all. This is an ancient custom, and it’s something so beautiful that has been preserved and kept alive by the Orthodox. The churching is an offering of the child to God, a dedicating of the child as a gift to the Lord. It’s had various expressions in the history of the Church. There’s been some changes in customs here and there. The basic idea of the parents bringing the child, the priest meeting the child in the narthex, offering prayers for the purification and forgiveness of the mother and welcoming the child as and establishing the child as a catechumen of the Church—this is what it’s all about.
After the 14th century, we have some different manuscript traditions that show that the rite of churching sometimes involved bringing the child into the altar, sometimes it didn’t, sometimes he would go in the south door and come out the north door. If he were a male child, the priest would take you on all four sides of the altar. If you were a female child, he’d take you on three sides. Today, a lot of times our churchings are done through the royal doors and not through the side doors. There’s been some changes. Generally, churchings are very closely related to baptisms, and usually the child, if the child goes into the altar, it’s because the child has already been baptized. The rubrics of our church say that if the child hasn’t been baptized, the child should not go into the altar. There’s lots of different customs, but the beauty is the same.
What is this… What’s at the heart of the mother staying away from church for forty days? This can be a very confusing question. Lots of folks don’t know what it’s all about. Why can’t the mother just run right back to church? These days, with medicine and with fitness and health as they are, sometimes moms are ready to come back. Sometimes I’ll get a call, [she’ll] say, “Father, I’m ready. I’m ready to go,” and it’s been two weeks! Usually this is young mothers. Those who have several children at home, they learn to really like these forty days. [Audience laughter] To make husband do some work…
Orthodox women remain outside of the temple and the normal routine of the Church’s sacramental life for the forty days following the birth in imitation of the Theotokos! This is the way to follow the Virgin in her life. When she gave birth to Jesus, she—even though she was completely holy and did not experience any pain and difficulty and didn’t even need to recover like most women do, from the pains of normal childbirth—she remained quietly for forty days until her purification on the fortieth day.
The practice of a woman remaining outside of the temple for these days acknowledges the fact that during these days the mother does not participate in the normal spiritual disciplines of the Church that we consider to be basic and necessary for receiving the holy Communion. Women who have just given birth do not fast. The Church does not ask them to. They don’t mortify their bodily members in trying to practice the spiritual struggle of the Church’s spiritual life like we do in preparation for Communion. In fact, the Church blesses women not to fast because their bodies have already been humbled through the process of giving birth. We try to humble our bodies by fasting, so that we can have a little thirst for Jesus in the Eucharist, but women who have given birth have already had that take place.
Once a woman has recovered her spiritual and physical equilibrium over the course of forty days, she is graciously reintegrated into the Eucharistic life of the Church. In all of the prayers—on the first day; the eighth day, the naming; and the fortieth day—there is a reference in the churching prayers to “uncleanness” and to sin in certain ways, and therefore the priest prays in the service for purification and forgiveness, and I want to say something about that so that you get it.
The uncleanness of childbirth is a really difficult concept, and it’s susceptible to misunderstandings. I want to suggest to you it can be understood in a couple ways. First, the pains associated with childbirth and the bloodletting that accompanies it are so intense; they are not a part of God’s original plan for women. This is not how God originally fashioned for children to be born: in great pain and sorrow. You might remember this from the opening chapters of Genesis. These pains are, in fact, a part of the Fall, and the particular curse that was given to Eve after the Fall. The Lord said to her, “In pain you shall bring forth children.” He gave a less intense but a longer-existing punishment to Adam in his sweat and labor.
In giving birth, a woman is powerfully reminded that she is a daughter of Eve and is experiencing the fruits of her first mother’s poor decisions and sins, and she’s united to Eve as a participant in fallenness, in sinful humanity. She tastes the curse in childbirth in a way that she never has before having a child. Her spiritual composure is put to the test radically by the travails that come upon her.
In our family we have lots of interesting stories that attended the births of different children. In fact, I have learned a lot about my wife by watching her give birth to children. I formed my highest opinions of her, really, by watching her in the cauldron of birthgiving, and I also came to respect her physical strength. I was impressed when she gave birth to our firstborn on a coffee table. I was not there, thank God; I would have passed out. [Audience laughter] But the ladies that were there told me that while she was delivering without any medical assistance or anesthesia on the coffee table, that she kept apologizing for inconveniencing them. [Audience laughter] “I’m so sorry to put you through this.” It was a women’s retreat. They weren’t expecting this.
Anyway, I learned a lot about her then. I also learned a lot when… I think it was our fourth child, Stasi, was being born, and the doctor made the dreaded mistake of wanting to alter the way that she was positioned in giving birth to the child. It was really for his convenience; he was an elderly physician. He thought he should move her for her convenience, but it was not for her comfort, so she took her leg and just smashed him right in the chest. [Audience laughter] Yes! That taught me a lot, too! [Audience laughter] He recovered, and the birth was fine—in her way, according to her arrangements.
Yes, delivery can be a time of tremendous challenge, and the time before churching is a time of tremendous spiritual growth and illumination. A woman can discover many things about herself during these days. She can bring them to the light. Sometimes things are thought, said, and done in the pains of labor that would never be thought, said, or done without labor, and it’s time to, in the days of churching, to deal with that and to fix that.
St. John Chrysostom says that the uncleanness of childbirth is not an uncleanness that God institutes. He says the woman in childbed is unclean, yet God made childbirth and he made the seed even of copulation. Why, then, is the woman is unclean unless something further is intimated, and what is this? God intended to produce piety in the soul and to turn it from all fornication, for if a woman in marriage is unclean who has born a child, how much more those who fornicate outside of marriage? It’s an image: the uncleanness is an uncleanness of circumstance, of being united to fallenness and of travail, and it’s not an uncleanness of marriage. This is the forgiveness that the Lord grants to the woman through churching.
Even though she goes through all these trials and she sees all these things, she also has the special blessing of not just being united to the first Eve, but also being united in the act to the second Eve, to the Virgin. She cooperates with God in the marvel of feminine accomplishments, the marvel of marvels, which is the bringing forth of new life. The mother becomes a co-creator with God of an immortal being, and thus in birth a mother can draw near to God himself. She works in close tandem with the Creator to fashion something that did not previously exist.
Coming this close to him who is the Light of the world is always a humbling experience. If you remember Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up—this was in the readings, interestingly, last night for vespers—when the Lord gave the vision in the temple to Isaiah as recorded in the sixth chapter of his prophecy, and Isaiah was there, watching God, this theophany. What did Isaiah [say]? He said, “Woe is me because my eyes have seen the Lord of hosts, and I am a man of unclean lips, and I live amongst a people of unclean lips!” This is the natural thing: when so much light shines, when the sun hits you, you squint. This is what happens in childbirth, and this is part of the reasons that women need the blessing of churching and of purification, because when a woman participates like this with God in the miracle of giving birth and she draws near to him and he draws near to her, she has to squint.
This is why St. Paul says it’s not a minor thing, but that women will be saved through childbirth and rearing, if they continue in faith. It’s not just a physiological thing. This is salvific, life-changing, the experience.
Today, brothers and sisters, we are witnessing that magnificent churching of churchings. The Savior of the world in his humble submission in his mother’s arms is brought to the temple, submitting to the Law that he himself instituted. Simeon receives him into his hands, and in our churching practices we imitate him and the Virgin. There is no other life for such a one who has been churched than the life of humble obedience to the Lord, and there’s no other life for all of us. Do you know that? You are churched people, all of you. You who have been baptized and received into this communion, you’ve been offered as a gift, as a votive offering to God.
Just like for the rest of Phoebe’s life, her whole life will only make sense in reference to her union with the Lord from the very first days of her life, it’s the same with you. If we follow him, if we hold onto him and we humbly follow in obedience his life, we’ll be like those prophesied by Simeon who, because of the Christ, rise instead of those who resist him, his Church, his bishops and priests, and fall. God grant us the former and his gracious kingdom where there is unspeaking joy unending. Amen.